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Pandemic diary: How one Chicago Latina is regaining her high school momentum

Yuliza Soto, a junior at Chicago's Prosser Career Academy, works on an assignment for an English class in her Belmont Cragin home.
Yuliza Soto, a junior at Chicago's Prosser Career Academy, works on an assignment for an English class in her Belmont Cragin home.

Yuliza Soto wakes with a start just after noon on a Monday.

The night before, the junior at Chicago’s Prosser Career Academy had once again lain in bed until daybreak, listening to soothing music and sifting through a tangle of worries: The looming mortgage payment on the house in Belmont Cragin her Mexican immigrant family of five had lovingly rehabbed. The $700 biweekly paycheck her father got after the coronavirus outbreak slashed his work hours in half. Her seemingly upended college plans.

After weeks of feeling unmoored by her school’s closure, Soto had looked forward to the official kickoff of remote learning in Chicago that April day. Now, she had just slept through her first classes via videoconference.

Students across the city have struggled to keep up the academic momentum amid the upheaval of school closures. But for some Latino youth like Soto — now almost half of Chicago’s 355,000 students — additional hurdles can stand in the way, from anxiety about family budgets to immigration issues to technology and language barriers that can hamper parent involvement. The crisis has threatened a precarious foothold in Chicago’s middle class that families like Soto’s worked for years to gain, and has imperiled the plans of would-be first generation college-goers.

Community groups across Chicago’s West Side have scrambled to take on some of these challenges remotely, even as some worry about an uptick in new Covid-19 cases in some of the city’s heavily Hispanic ZIP codes.

“TIRED,” Soto writes in her coronavirus journal. And later, “It’s a scary time, but I believe as a community we can get through it together.”

Over two weeks this spring, Soto grapples with the kind of questions she believes are turning hers into a generation of insomniacs: Can she get back on track with school and with college applications? Will quarantine sabotage her grades — and her family’s economic prospects?

* * *

The weeks after school buildings throughout Illinois closed felt to Soto like a bizarre, angst-filled vacation. Some of her teachers assigned schoolwork to tackle at home; but mostly, the days of sheltering in place became an invitation to think and worry.

Soto frets over how her parents — essential workers quickly turned dispensable — would weather prolonged quarantine. The chain restaurant where her mom works has closed her location. Soto’s dad held on to his job at a catering company, but orders and his pay are down drastically. Soto thinks about getting a job as a grocery cashier to help out. But she is nervous about pitching the idea to her dad, who insists that Soto and her two younger brothers focus on their studies.

Sustaining that focus has been hard. Soto and the boys, a freshman and a fifth-grader, have always done homework on their phones. When schools closed, Soto’s dad bought a secondhand laptop and an internet connection. But can all three of them share the device now that remote learning is ramping up?

Soto worries about the cancelled SAT she’d planned to take this month and the prospect of getting just one shot at the college entrance test in the fall. She hopes to be the first in her family to go to college. At Prosser, her Theory of Knowledge teacher would quiz Soto about her college to-do list in the hallways. The teacher let Soto use her computer during lunch to work on college essays.

Without those nudges, Soto starts thinking her dream school, Northwestern University, where she hopes to study pre-med, is out of her reach. She knows maintaining her high GPA is key, but she fears these chaotic weeks will wreak havoc on her third quarter grades.

“Sometimes I try to pretend I am not stressed, but it’ll put me in a gloomy mood,” Soto writes in her diary.

* * *

In March, Patrick Brosnan of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council sent a note to supporters with a tone of urgency: The neighborhood and other heavily Latino communities in southwest Chicago would bear the brunt of the pandemic’s fallout, he predicted. He shared a survey suggesting that more than 40% of local residents had seen their employment affected and more than 45% worry about rent or mortgages. Those who are undocumented wil not qualify for federal and state help on the way.

“This outbreak shows how fragile the economic situation is for so many of our families,” he said. “If your home is not stable, you won’t be able to learn.”

Sixty percent of Latino workers in Illinois earn less than $15 an hour, the highest portion of any racial group in the state, according to data from the Latino Policy Forum. Only a small fraction have jobs they can do from home. Amid the pandemic, many reported needing basic necessities, mental health support, rent and mortgage help.

Julia Vega, the mother of two elementary students in Little Village, says sheltering her children from worries that can disrupt their learning has been a priority. Vega’s husband, a landscaper, is missing out on all-important early spring business this year. Vega, a seamstress, spends much of her time volunteering to sew face masks.

“We have to stay calm and tell ourselves everything will be OK so our kids feel everything will be OK,” she said.

So far, black residents have accounted for the bulk of COVID-19 cases and deaths. But a new analysis of public health data by Enigma Forensics suggests Chicago cases are climbing fastest in some of the city’s majority Latino ZIP codes — numbers that worry advocates such as Brosnan.

* * *

On that first Monday of remote learning, Soto scrambles out of bed, determined to salvage what’s left of her first day. She fires up a Chromebook her family picked up at Prosser days earlier, part of a Chicago district push to hand out 100,000 devices to students who need them.

She has 15 emails from teachers in her seven classes, including some she could not reach before spring break. She quickly scans the notes: an onslaught of assignments to give students chances to improve their third-quarter grades, due at the end of the week.

Soto stares at her screen, momentarily paralyzed. Then she gets to work.

A sketch Chicago junior Yuliza Soto created as part of a school assignment. Some Latino teens such as Soto have found themselves beset by both academic and economic pressures.
A sketch Chicago junior Yuliza Soto created as part of a school assignment. Some Latino teens such as Soto have found themselves beset by both academic and economic pressures.

The next day she signs on to several video classes at Prosser, where almost 80% of students identify as Latino. A favorite history teacher reassures the class those quarantine assignments really will not hurt their grades under the state’s recommendation and district rules. Classmates discuss throwing a virtual baby shower for their pregnant English teacher. Teens tease each other, mock-bicker, crack jokes. After weeks caught up in quarantine inertia, Soto feels energized.

“Seeing my teachers and classmates today really brightened my mood,” she writes.

* * *

Community groups are stepping in to help students like Soto remotely, though many advocates say a major digital divide facing Latino families is hampering their efforts.

Many nonprofits on the West Side partner closely with neighborhood schools, and some have tried to supplement with donated technology the district’s own push to hand out devices.

The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council also partnered with local schools to include 15,000 donated face masks in boxed school meals. The nonprofit’s school clinicians and case workers now work with students over the phone and online.

Brighton Park Neighborhood Council staff unload a shipment of donated face masks.
Brighton Park Neighborhood Council staff unload a shipment of donated face masks.

Enlace, a nonprofit in Little Village, is working to shift its after-school, parent mentoring and college coaching programs remotely. The Albany Park Community Center, in a Northwest Side neighborhood home to many Latino and other immigrants, is hosting mock summer job and internship interviews over videoconference and working to offer after-school support for students and parents remotely.

The center’s leaders say amid many stresses that have beset Albany Park residents, one of the most daunting tasks is guiding learning from home. But those families are also resilient, they said.

“It’s a real challenge, but I think there will be lots of innovation and growth that comes out of it,” said Victor Dufour, the center’s director of community partnerships.

At Acero, the city’s second-largest charter network where about 95% of students are Latino, staff enlisted a key ally in reaching out to families after the schools closed: graduates of its Padres Comprometidos (Engaged Parents) program. They set out to brainstorm solutions over text on the eve of the closures.

“The schools are a safe place for our families — not just to learn and to grow but to come with questions on a wide variety of issues,” Acero spokeswoman Helena Stangle said.

* * *

Soto tries to shake off her shelter-in-place night owl ways. But she can’t quite vanquish her insomnia, fueled now by worries about school assignments and deadlines.

Still, she wakes early on Thursday. Her grades are posted online later that day. The computer screen brings good news: She got As in all her classes.

But she is not celebrating yet: It’s the final grades that will really matter for her college applications, and she needs to step up her game in several classes. She strikes an upbeat tone in a poem she writes for an assignment.

“Rock, blocking the flow of life


Yet, its river continues to flow.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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